Finally, a prestigious group of college professors has come right out and said that the emperor (i.e., the Imperial University) has no clothes. Many have long suspected that college education has been dramatically dumbed down (like the public schools), but few have had the courage to say so.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS), the nation's leading higher-education reform organization, has just published a devastating 65-page report on its investigation of the courses offered and required at 50 top undergraduate colleges and universities. The NAS used U.S. News & World Report's annual listing of "America's Best Colleges" (including both private and public). All figures cited below refer to those 50 elite institutions in the particular years chosen for comparison, 1914, 1939, 1964, and 1993.
The NAS concludes that students no longer learn the common core of knowledge once taken for granted as essential to a liberal-arts education. The universities have simply purged from the curriculum many of the required courses that formerly taught students the historical, cultural, political and scientific basics of our society.
The number of mandatory courses has been dramatically reduced from an average of 9.9 in 1914, to 7.3 in 1939, to 6.9 in 1964, and to 2.5 in 1993. The formerly universal requirement that students take a basic survey course in several important areas has virtually vanished.
Universities now offer very few courses that require prerequisites, which means that very few college courses now require any advance knowledge or preparation. In 1914, universities offered an average of only 23 courses per institution that did not require a prerequisite course; in 1964 the figure had risen to 127; today, the number is 582.
Only 12 percent of universities now require a thesis or comprehensive examination to get a bachelor's degree. As late as 1964, more than half of universities did.
The college year has been shortened by about one-fourth (leaving more time for spring break and other frivolities, but, of course, without any reduction in tuition price or professors' salaries). In 1914, college classes were in session an average of 204 days a year; by 1939 the number had dropped to 195; in 1964, to 191; and today students and teachers are expected to show up in class only 156 days per academic year.
Maybe the reason why young people can't write good English is that so few colleges teach writing any more. In 1914, nearly all universities had required courses in English composition; by 1964 the figure was 86 percent; today, it's only 36 percent.
Ditto for math. In 1914, 82 percent of the universities had traditional mathematics requirements; by 1964 only 36 percent did; now, only 12 percent do. In 1914, 1939 and 1964, more than 70 percent of the institutions required at least one course in the natural sciences; that figure has now fallen to only 34 percent.
Maybe the reason why the federal guidelines on the teaching of American history turned out to be such a travesty was that most college graduates haven't studied any history. In 1914, 90 percent of our elite colleges required history; in 1939 and 1964 more than 50 percent did; but now only one of the 50 schools has a required history course.
Literature courses were required at 75 percent of the institutions in 1914, and at 50 percent in 1939 and 1964. Today, not one of the "best" institutions has a literature requirement.
Meanwhile, the total number of courses offered at undergraduate institutions has increased by a factor of five since 1914, and has doubled since 1964, but that doesn't mean more opportunities to become an educated citizen. The majority of these additional courses are on narrow and idiosyncratic subjects of interest to the professors but almost worthless to the students. The total includes such trendy and trivial courses as Stanford's "Gender and Science" (which purports to study science free from outdated male assumptions), and Georgetown's "Unspeakable Lives: Gay and Lesbian Narratives."
Here are some examples of courses given at Yale University for which students can receive college credit: "Gender and the Politics of Resistance: Feminism, Capitalism and the Third World." "Gender and Technology." "Feminist Perspectives on Literature." "Lesbian and Gay Theater Performance." "The Literature of AIDS." "Contemporary Lesbian and Gay Arts and Culture." "Constructing Lesbian Identities." Such courses are just propaganda and entertainment masquerading as education.
The result is that our best colleges and universities no longer turn out graduates who have an elementary knowledge of our civilization and its heritage. They do not learn the basic facts of our country's history, political and economic systems, philosophic traditions, and literary and artistic legacies.
Quite apart from the fraud of charging an exorbitant $100,000 for a devalued diploma is the fact that we are in danger of losing the national cohesion of a known and shared heritage which has sustained and nourished our unique institutions of freedom within a limited, constitutional government.
The New York Times quoted a critic of this NAS report as arguing that
"the real agenda of higher education today is the concern with problem solving, critical thinking, communicating and learning how to value."
But how are students going to engage in all those thoughtful processes when their knowledge is so pathetically limited and their composition and communication skills are almost non-existent?
In addition, there is the dumbing down inherent in giving courses that are not college courses at all, but are designed to teach students what they didn't learn in high school. Sometimes these courses are called "remedial," but the institutions prefer euphemisms such as "second tier" and "sub-freshman." Such courses were unheard of prior to 1939, and only three institutions offered them in 1964. Today such non-college-level courses are offered in 70 percent of the elite universities, and most of them award college credit.
California state legislators recently discovered the high cost to the taxpayers of the remedial education courses given at the state universities. Last year, 60 percent of new students needed remedial help. California legislators assert that students have been the victims of consumer fraud perpetrated on them by the high schools that gave them high grades. The legislators want to send the invoice for the cost of the remedial courses to the high schools that deceived their students by giving them a 3.8 or higher grade-point average.
The 1996 Governors Education Summit at Palisades, New York, spent two days discussing "standards" for what students should learn in public schools. Longtime American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker gave this concept a reality check. He said that when, as a teacher, he assigned homework to his class, the pupils invariably responded in chorus, "Does it count on our grade?" He pointed out the fact of human nature that standards aren't going to make any difference if, no matter what students learn or don't learn, they can still get admitted to nearly all U.S. colleges and universities.
The standards question in the public schools could be resolved if colleges and universities would abolish their remedial courses and admit only students capable of doing college work. But they won't because of the easy flow of taxpayers' money, which makes it so profitable for colleges and universities to admit all the students they can and then send the bill to the taxpayers.
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